Playing A Zero Sum Game

In a zero sum game, one player loses what the other wins.  The total of all the money is the same, only the pockets differ.

Edmonton mayor Don Iverson does not seem to get this concept.  He recently criticized the federal government for the way they have treated his city.  “Edmontonians don’t like getting ripped off.”

Were Edmontonians ripped off?  It depends on how you define that.

My idea is ripped off means steal, cheat, extort, swindle and words like that.  The mayor sees it differently.  His idea is that that Ottawa did not give them enough.

Ottawa pledged to pay 25% of a public transit infrastructure project.  $400,000,000.  How is that a ripoff you wonder.  Well, Ottawa pledged to pay 33% in Calgary, Toronto and Ottawa.  There is no information provided in his chatter as to the differences that may exist in the projects, and that might matter.

It is difficult to see, within my definition of ripped off, how a grant of $400 million can be a bad thing.  Are we talking the rate as definitive?  Maybe 33% in Calgary is fewer dollars despite the higher sharing rate.  Would the mayor have been happy if Edmonton and the other cities had each gotten 20% of the project cost? 

I doubt it.

Politicians and a good many of the people feel ripped off if they get less than someone else received.  Maybe it is time to just say “Thanks” and move on.  The comparison of gifts leads to a predictable end.  Everyone gets nothing.

This is a good time to notice the idea of comparative gifts.  We have politicians seeking office.  Gift giving is on the front burner.  We must be smart enough to allow those that need the gifts to receive them without feeling we should have received something  ourselves.

Comparative gift assessment is an incentive trap.  By trying to get more, I motivate someone else to do better still.  More join the game and eventually we are each trying to get everything.  Then the game breaks.

Politicians like to give gifts, but they would like it less if they gave their own resources.  As Homer Simpson has observed, “It is easy to be generous if it doesn’t cost much.”  We should be smarter and refuse to reward them for spending money on things that are just shiny objects intended to attract votes.

The government cannot do much for you without taking more away than you can get back. Some goes to bureaucracy.   The zero sum game.

It might be better if you just kept the money. Your best move is to refuse to play.

Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international public accounting firm and is now with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.


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